Americans have seen it on their televisions and heard it on their radios: political ads backed by unnamed sources; the work of so-called advocacy groups backed by undisclosed donors; damaging policy agendas orchestrated by special interests; endless money muddying the waters of our debate with confusion and voter suppression.
This has been the impact over the past four years of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The narrow court majority, overturning decades of precedent, opened the floodgates to millions of dollars in secret, special-interest spending on elections. Indeed, Citizens United shook the foundation of our democracy: the principle that, in the United States of America, it is the voices of the people, not the bank accounts of the privileged few, that determine the outcome of our elections and the policies of our government.
Our Founders established a government of the many, not a government of the money. That’s what the American people deserve.
Most people who run for public office do so out of a sincere desire to help others and make a difference in their community and in our country. Many of us are deeply frustrated at the huge amounts of money it takes to run for office and the distorting effect money has on the functioning of government.
We know that if the role of money in our elections were reduced and the level of civility in our politics increased, the result would be the election of more women, more minorities, more young people and more people dedicated to serving the public interest, not special interests.
Most members of Congress would leap at the chance to fund their campaigns without having to turn to a familiar cast of big donors and entrenched interests. Today, that’s virtually impossible.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can and must break the grip of special interests on our politics. Those of us inside and outside the Capitol who support this kind of major change are rallying around H.R. 20, the Government by the People Act, which is to be introduced Wednesday. This sensible, straightforward legislation would:
• Encourage the participation of everyday Americans in the funding of campaigns by providing a refundable $25 My Voice Tax Credit. This would bring the voices of the broader public into the funding side of campaigns and democratize the relationship between money and speech.
• Establish a Freedom From Influence Matching Fund to boost the power of small-dollar contributions. To be eligible for these matching funds, a candidate would have to agree to a limit on large donations and demonstrate broad-based support from a network of small-dollar contributors. Amplified by the Freedom From Influence Matching Fund, the voices of everyday Americans would be as powerful as those of big donors.
• Provide candidates with an opportunity to earn additional resources in the homestretch of a campaign so that the voices of the people are not completely drowned out by super political action committees and other dark-money interests. In the wake of Citizens United, this kind of support is critical to ensuring that citizen-backed candidates have staying power.
The funding for these changes should come from closing tax and regulatory loopholes that are the decades-old legacy of special-interest influence in Congress. It’s only fair that those responsible for breaking the policymaking machinery in Washington should bear the cost of fixing it.
From Seneca Falls, N.Y., to Selma, Ala., generations of Americans have stood up against seemingly insurmountable status quos that denied their voices and their votes. Today’s generation, too, must have the courage to take back our politics.
We must disclose the sources of the money in our campaigns, amend the Constitution to reverse the grievous error of the Citizens United decision, reform our broken campaign finance system and empower citizens everywhere to exercise their right to vote.
The Government by the People Act would help build a politics and a government that answer to the people. Together, we can reassert the full promise of our ideals and restore confidence in our democracy.
Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, is the House minority leader and represents California’s 12th Congressional District. John Sarbanes, a Democrat, represents Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District.